The woman behind a W.Va. addiction response team

HUNTINGTON (AP) — Larrecsa Cox had a train ticket and $100 to her name. She was just trying to leave Wisconsin, and never anticipated she’d be combating drug addiction in a city that media referred to as “ground zero” for the opioid crisis.

“I never thought I’d live in West Virginia,” Cox said.

In the winter of 2017, Cox became the first and only full-time member for the Huntington Quick Response Team, a group designed to help those struggling with addiction get treatment. But she ended up in West Virginia by complete happenstance.

Cox grew up in Texas and moved to Wisconsin with her mother after her parents divorced. By the time she was 19, she decided to move to the Mountain State because that is where her husband at the time was from.

After starting out as a paramedic for Cabell County EMS, she applied to be on the QRT, which is comprised of a police officer, paramedic, mental health professional and faith leader. The other members of the team work on a volunteer basis.

The team came to fruition in December 2017, a little over a year after Huntington made national headlines for having just under 30 overdoses within five hours. No patients were referred to recovery support services, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Now Cox and a rotating group of volunteers go door-to-door trying to find people who have overdosed, and they’re not easy to find. Sometimes the addresses aren’t right, people aren’t home or they’re not ready to go into treatment. But when they do convince someone to seek help, it makes all the searching and door knocking worthwhile, Cox said.

“It just feels really good when it works,” Cox said.

Cox recalls sitting on a park bench for an hour trying to convince a client to seek treatment. He was covered in sores, but he didn’t want to receive treatment of any kind.

“We would say, ‘Hey, let’s take you to a doctor to at least take care of your medical issues; this infection could kill you,'” Cox said.

Cox said the process of dealing with a client begins by telling them they’re not in trouble. Then they explain options for if they want to seek treatment. But this time around, Cox thought her efforts weren’t working, until she got an unexpected call after her shift ended.

“I was standing in my kitchen cooking and then he calls and said, ‘I’ll go anywhere you put me,'” Cox said.

Working off the clock isn’t unheard of for Cox or the other team members, QRT coordinator Connie Priddy said.

“Larrecsa has spent so many hours of her own time. In the evenings we don’t want them taking the phone home and answering in off-hours, but they have,” Priddy said.

The hard work has paid off. Since the program began, the team has identified 1,300 eligible clients, made contact with about half of them and got 30 percent into treatment.

“We feel like it’s high because we’re doing cold calls, and we’re not offering them any incentives like some law enforcement diversion programs do,” Priddy said.

However, that success comes at a price. Cox said she feels the team needs more than one full-time member. As the only full-time member, all the reports and documentation fall on her. She also said she frequently needs to catch volunteers up because it’s not the same people every day.

Priddy said if she could go back, she would’ve added more full-time positions when applying for the grant.

“That would be the ideal situation. But our community was in such a bad way, anything we could do with whatever we could do is what we did,” Priddy said.

Priddy said she hopes in the future more full-time staff can become a reality. As of now, the program is funded by two grants, both of which expire in 2020. Priddy said she is still looking for ways to fund the program beyond that expiration date.

“We’ve explored ways of self funding, plus there are multiple grants out there now,” Priddy said.

She added she is optimistic the program will receive some sort of funding since Huntington’s QRT became a national model for other communities to follow. Priddy said she’s received calls from local leaders in New Hampshire, Florida, Illinois and New Mexico inquiring about the program. Several towns and cities in West Virginia also looked at the model. Charleston started its own QRT in 2018.

Although, Huntington’s QRT model is well-regarded, Cox acknowledged some barriers remain. For instance, she said she can call some treatment facilities and see if a client checked in, but if the facility isn’t familiar with QRT, they’ll often say they can’t “confirm or deny.”

Despite some of the challenges she faces, Cox said she still enjoys what she does. Even before joining QRT, she was no stranger to long hours and a busy schedule. It’s ultimately why she wanted to become a paramedic to begin with.

“I wanted that fast-paced life and to never sleep,” Cox said.

When she came to West Virginia 13 years ago, she was working odd jobs at department stores and a broadcast company, barely making enough to support herself and her then-husband. She was searching through job postings and saw a flyer that read, “Be an EMT. Save lives.”

But when she first started, the job wasn’t exactly what she thought it would be.

“They made you feel like you were going to save the world,” Cox said. “But then you get hired and your first month is going to be on a transport truck going to a hospital transporting someone who is alert and oriented and just needs a ride home.”

Eventually she got moved to the 911 truck where it was more eventful. But the hours were long and sleep was limited. There were times where lives were literally in her hands.

After a while she wanted to slow down. She had two little girls to take care of and a house with three dogs, several pet reptiles and a cat. After five years of being on the 911 truck, she was looking for a change, which is ultimately why she decided to apply for QRT.

“It takes a toll on you and your body just aches,” Cox said about her experience on the 911 truck.

Now with the QRT, Cox has long days, but in a different way. Some days she’ll hit five houses and not be able to find who she is looking for. But there are some visits that make the job worth it. One of those visits was to a trailer in Milton.

“I didn’t expect her to even answer her door, and she didn’t want anything to do with us,” Cox said.

However, after some convincing the client agreed to let them in. While the team was discussing treatment options with the woman, her 18-year-old daughter walked in.

“How do you feel about me going away for 28 days?” the woman asked her daughter.

Her daughter said: “I’d rather you be gone 28 days than forever.”

Although some days can be long and taxing, Cox said seeing interactions like these is what makes her job rewarding.

“That is what makes it worth it,” Cox said. “She needed to hear that, and maybe we needed to be there for them to have that conversation.”